The missing voice of John McCain in impeachment and Ukraine

Late senator was the foremost expert and advocate in Congress for the Eastern European nation

Sen. John McCain waves to supporters at an opposition rally in Kyiv, Ukraine, in December 2013. No Republican has stepped in to replace the late senator as a top advocate for Ukrainian democracy, Murphy writes. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Sen. John McCain waves to supporters at an opposition rally in Kyiv, Ukraine, in December 2013. No Republican has stepped in to replace the late senator as a top advocate for Ukrainian democracy, Murphy writes. (Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images file photo)
Posted November 18, 2019 at 5:30am

OPINION — If there was ever a time and a place where the voice of John McCain was missing from Congress, this is it — at the intersection of an impeachment, an election and a constitutional crisis.

The late Arizona Republican was one of the few members famously ready and willing to stand on a political island if he thought it was the right thing to do. So it’s easy to imagine him waiting in the well of the Senate to flash a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down on the fate of President Donald Trump, with cable pundits everywhere holding their breath until he did.

But more importantly, McCain was also the foremost expert and advocate in Congress for Ukraine, the country that served as the backdrop for the events that have led Trump to the doorstep of his own impeachment. Why is that important? Because there’s no way that Rudy Giuliani could have marauded so freely in Ukraine or that Trump could have pulled the ambassador in Kyiv with less than two hours notice or that the Office of Management and Budget and Mick Mulvaney could have withheld vital aid for Ukrainian troops as they did without the senator from Arizona making it known to the world. Loudly.

To understand how important McCain was in Ukraine before he died, you only need to know that there are multiple roads in the country named “John McCain Street,” including one in Kyiv (voted by its city council). Another is in Krymske, a small town on the front lines of the war against Russia. Lacking the resources for a new street sign, Nolan Peterson from the Daily Signal described a day in Krymske in 2015 when Ukrainian troops taped a printed-out sheet of paper with McCain’s picture on it to a power pole next to the road to make it official.

When McCain died in 2018, the editor of the Kyiv Post described him as beloved in a country in search of champions and heroes: “When Ukraine faced some of its darkest and most dangerous times, it was often not the voice of a Ukrainian politician who lifted the spirits of the nation. It was the voice of U.S. Sen. John McCain.”

Loading the player...

A fierce advocate

McCain’s commitment to Ukraine was equally well-known in the Senate, where he drafted legislation, pushed for funding and led CODELS to the country with more junior senators to focus their attention on the region. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, McCain demanded sanctions to punish Moscow. He visited troops on the front lines. He led the push for money to strengthen its economy and eventually succeeded in authorizing funds to arm Ukrainian troops with lethal weapons to fight Vladimir Putin’s army.

“I started working for him in April of 2004, and he called me in right away and said, ‘We’ve got to plan a trip, a CODEL, this summer.’ And he said we should go to Ukraine,” Rich Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security and a top foreign policy adviser to McCain, told me last week.

Fontaine described McCain’s commitment to the country as partially driven by what he saw as America’s responsibility to help fledgling democracies govern themselves. Even more important, he viewed Putin’s Russia as an existential threat to Western democracy.

[McCain Frequent Target of Russian Social Media Trolls in Trump Era]

Fontaine laughed as he said he often didn’t know what McCain would think about something, even when he worked for the senator. But he was confident the events in Ukraine this summer would have made McCain furious.

“I think [he] would see it as a travesty that in the middle of a war where the government of Ukraine is trying to defend itself against a foreign-backed separatist movement in its East and relies on military aid from the United States, that the United States is holding it up, at a minimum, for some unknown reason, and at a maximum, for really bad reason,” Fontaine said.

A missing voice

There’s no way to know what McCain would have thought of the impeachment itself. Whether he would have signaled his thumb up or down for the president. But his career in the Senate was marked by moments when his voice, and only his voice, made the ultimate difference in a debate that ultimately rested on American values and McCain’s articulation of America’s responsibility to promote freedom around the world. The normalization of relations with Vietnam in 1995 was one such moment, as was McCain’s staunch opposition to waterboarding by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11.

But he would certainly have been speaking out today for Ukraine, whose people he often promised, “Your fight is our fight.” And he would have raised alarms again and again over Putin and Russia, which he described as a “kleptocracy” and a “gas station masquerading as a country.”

In McCain’s absence, several of the senators he took to Ukraine and mentored have taken up the cause. Connecticut Democrat Chris Murphy, who went to Ukraine with McCain in his first year as a senator, has returned to the country several times and even pushed Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Jim Risch in May to investigate Giuliani and his machinations in the country against U.S. foreign policy. Ohio Republican Rob Portman, who co-chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus, made the case privately to Trump in September to release the aid he was holding, which the president did later that day. 

But has anyone, anywhere, stepped up and taken on the fight for Ukrainian democracy and against Russia with the same fight and moral clarity, especially among Republicans? “Nobody comes to mind,” a national security aide for Senate Democrats told me last week. “And maybe that’s the answer.”

Ukraine needs a champion to step into the void.  And so does the United States itself.

Patricia Murphy covers national politics for The Daily Beast. Previously, she was the Capitol Hill bureau chief for Politics Daily and founder and editor of Citizen Jane Politics. Follow her on Twitter @1PatriciaMurphy.